Thursday, April 2, 2009

Theresa Rebeck Fascinates Me

She does. Absolutely. I've never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I can't quite imagine what it must be like. It could be awesome and she could be like the cool, funny theatre aunt I kind of already have, but you need more of. Or she could be one of those angry, bitter, chain-smoking people I edge around at theatre gatherings for fear that she'll turn on me like a wounded cougar. Either way, she is, by pretty much any measure, one of the most successful dramatists working today. She had a play open on Broadway last season, one of very few* women to do so. She also had a successful run at Second Stage. She's also been a producer on several hit TV shows and won numerous awards. She's pretty much living the life many, many writers aspire to. And yet...there's this.

I feel similarly about her essay/Op-Ed as I did about her similar rant on the lack of productions for women playwrights. It's a right on, absolutely important observation and issue for discussion and I wonder how she gets the righteous anger up.

Theresa Rebeck writes plays with a strong narrative thrust that happen in realistic, naturalistic setting. It's been forgotten that that old, much-shredded and reviled review of the Humana Festival by Charles Isherwood was a good review for her play. Her plays get produced regularly, all over the place. In a way, I think, "What's she complaining about?"

But then I think, someone doesn't need to be affected by something to complain about an inequality. And there is a definite inequality when it comes to a certain kind of play, a certain kind of narrative structure, a certain form of storytelling. One of the things that I think is confusing Isaac is that in her article, Rebeck uses soft, safe language to describe what's going on in the literary management/artistic discussion circles of the world.

It's not "plot" that's missing, or even "structure" really. There's simply a certain kind of play that's on the outs. The "traditional" play: three-act structure, realistic set and situation, straightforward unfolding of plot tied to strong, clear character motivation. Realism, not naturalism.* This is, as she put it, "uncool." And theatres want "cool." Very, very much so.

When you boil anything down, in any good play, there's a plot. There's always a plot of some kind, really. But the cool thing now is to have as little a plot as you can get away with. If you write a play with "too much" plot or "too much" realism, especially if you're a young artist, theatres aren't so much interested. It's not the plot that's king now; it's the style. Literary departments are looking for the cool, new voice and that generally translates into something that's less dependent on characters pursuing a clear objective and is more about commenting on society and pop culture, adding layers of quirk and "theatricality," and doing things that the audience doesn't expect.

"Theatricality" is the buzzword for a lot of this. And it, usually, just means weird shit. Something rises unexpectedly out of the floor. Characters have odd physical traits or behave irrationally. I'm a big, big fan of Sarah Ruhl's work and I loved Eurydice, absolutely. That work is the pinnacle of what theatres are looking for right now. Somebody who saw it explain to me what the Three Stones were doing in it. Seriously. Beyond being a chorus, a stylistic element, what purpose did they serve? I think that's what Rebeck is talking about. When plot and story was king, it didn't really mean plays were less experimental or weird. Let's remember that Death of a Salesman is NOT a realistic play. But all of the elements served the plot. This is just less important now, if not considered a bad thing. I also really, really enjoyed Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty. But that's another play where style overwhelms plot or action. I'm not saying that that makes it a bad play, but it makes it a certain kind of play. The kind of play that gets buzz and gets noticed, in theatre circles.

Unless you're already Theresa Rebeck. Then you get to write your straightforward realistic plays and theatres snap them up. Because you're a proven commodity and because the audiences tend to respond to them. That's the other side of it. For most major theatres, the audiences respond better to the realistic plays; they're used to them. Theatres see it as selling out and they let the artists know that. If the alterkockers like it, it's gotta be bad. But if the alterkockers like it, well, they'll buy tickets for it, so we program it.

And if you're not an established writer...sorry, not really interested. Or we'll keep you hanging around on the periphery and encourage you to write a different kind of play, add more theatricality. Make it less "commercial." Yes, I'm talking about my own work. And, yes, you could say I was a bit bitter about it. And if you want to dismiss all of this because of that, the way I kind of want to dismiss what Rebeck is writing about because she's successful, go right ahead. But I do think it's true. There is a style that's popular now. It may not be popular forever, but it is now. And I know I've wrestled with how that affects my work. Because it's a very different style than I work in. So do I keep doing what I'm doing and know that it will mean I get passed over for opportunities? Or do I try to change what I'm doing, maybe just a little, so it appeals to the gatekeepers? Or do I try to opt out of the system altogether?

*If not the only. My memory is hazy.
* Although these words are often used interchangably, I think of them as different styles. A Streetcar Named Desire and Burn This are realistic plays. The Thugs by Adam Bock I consider a naturalistic play. Feel free to disagree.


Seth Christenfeld said...

Rebeck's was the only new play by woman to open last season; there were also two musicals cowritten by women (In the Heights and Passing Strange), as well as the revival of Top Girls.

(A pity, then, that Mauritius was so terrible.)

Ken said...

I've been following this story over at Parabasis, and in life. I find it so sad that the theatre world has to split itself up into cliques (granted, if I was a member in good standing of the cool kids, I guess I'd have less of a problem with people choosing sides). I don't think I really understand what the grand poo-bahs of theatre want in a play today.

I've had plays returned to me by literary managers of theaters, with comments detailing the lack of structure, and how this moment didn't pay off later in the play, etc. Yet the same theatre will regularly put on plays that are riots of language and stage design, without a coherent storyline or anything resembling recognizable characters---bad, rehashed Richard Foreman. Are they only chasing what's cool? I am beginning to lose a sense of where I might fit in. I'm not terribly interested in writing conventional Broadway style three-act well-made plays, yet I don't see myself writing plays where stones talk, either. I'm not looking to appeal to the white-haired subscription audience I see EVERYWHERE, who want to see a nice pleasant story and get home before the 11:00 news, yet the feeling I am getting from the terribly hip is that I should confine myself to that world.

I think ultimately a lot of this stems from the American tendancy to think of the arts as a lottery, or a horse race. Someone's always on top--the coolest, the most-produced. That is, until we tire of them, and then another person, another style, must be ushered in. All of it suggesting that Americans think theatre is inherently a silly affair to spend one's time on. Contrast this with Britain, where the theatre is still vital, where having something to say is what counts, no the wrapper it comes in. They can allow a Stoppard, An Aykbourn, a Churchill, a Barker, a Brenton, a Bond, a McDonagh all to flourish, each doing their own very individual thing.

Forgive my blabbery, but I remain a puzzled playwright.

Tony Adams said...

I think to some extent all of us are complicit in the cult of the new.

Ken, "I don't think I really understand what the grand poo-bahs of theatre want in a play today." I think the sad answer is neither do they.

I also think it's easy for us younger artists to forget that the "blue-hairs" are actually the audiences that supported Miller, Beckett, Pinter, Shepard, Fornes, Churchill et al., and all the experimental writers in the 50's 60's, 70's and 80's before they were legendary playwrights.

And they still go to the theatre on a regular basis.

Most older audience members I've ever spoken to don't want to be bored either, but they still show up in support of the theatre.

After 40 years of sitting in the stalls, they just don't conflate "shocking" or "new" with good, unlike many producers.

99 said...

I'm certainly not in the "ban all the blue-hairs" camp, but I do think theatres need to re-think who their audiences are and who they want their audiences to be. What one generations thinks of as "good" isn't necessarily the same as what another generation. And it's not even really about generations. Those same audiences that love and supported Miller, Shepard, et al., if you put a new name on some of their early work and showed it to them now, they'd hate it. Because they're not in the same place they were 40 years ago. I think theatres are caught in a place of wanting "buzz," but not wanting to alienate anyone. Which leads to pretty timid choice all around. They know they need to find new audiences, but don't know how to keep them coming. And usually wind up disappointing everyone a little bit.

Ken said...

I don't think we can escape from the reality that theatre is just about the most conservative of art forms. The idea that new, shocking forms must be introduced to keep the arts alive is something that is second-nature in the visual arts, and to a lesser extent in classical music (Can you ever imagine a riot over a play, similar to the tearing-up of seats at the premiere of Stravinksy's "The Rite of Spring"?). Damien Hirst's new installation will be argued over and debated in the arts journals for months--where will you see similar discussions over a play? In theatre, even something that attempts to be radically different is still operating under the old template. Seats must be filled, so an audience must be pleased. After all, we expect loving applause at the end of every performance--can we really expect to deliver harsh medicine, if that's our desired end point?

99 said...

I don't know, Ken. I feel like there's still plenty of room for experimentation and scandalization of the audience in theatre. The rioting thing is a thing of the past in general. When was the last time anything cultural sparked an actual riot? But the new play by Christina Anderson at Playwrights, that's sparked some good discussion. I do think there's a homogeny of opinion and discussion, in part because, yes, theatres are looking to put butts in seats and a lot of their mission statements go out the window when facing something that could be a "hit." I'm not sure if theatre is conservative art form or if we're practicing theatre in conservative ways. I think it's possible to challenge what people expect of theatre and what our notions of theatricality are. I just don't think theatres have the balls to follow through on that.

Duncan Pflaster said...

I think I have to point out that Theresa Rebeck is only able to write these columns because she IS one of the most successful dramatists working today- I feel like she's giving a voice on behalf of her younger self (and other artists who are where she once was), since that younger self didn't have the public forum that she now enjoys.